Locating Value in Spreadable Media: Executive Summary (part 2/3)

Here’s part 2 of the executive summary to my most recent white paper, completed earlier this year and now available to the public. This part digs more into the differences in regulation and expectations between monetary and non-monetary forms of exchange. Part 1 is here.

Spreadable Media Across Market and Non-market Exchanges

To truly begin to understand how media spreads, we must come to understand how it comes to move across social systems, cultural forms, technological platforms, and modes of market and non-market exchange. All things used in exchanges — be they physical goods or more ephemeral things such as services, information, or experiences — carry three basic forms of interrelated value: use-value, symbolic-value, and exchange value.

  • Use-value: An object’s use-value is most plainly the material characteristic of an object, that does not mean it isn’t subject to social or conditional regulation.
  • Symbolic-value: The second dimension of value comes from an understanding of consumer culture. Symbolic-value is what differentiates goods or services that have similar use-values. Brands, for instance, are the bearers of symbolic-value.
  • Exchange-value: Finally, exchange-value, is the translation of a good’s use-value and symbolic-value within a system of exchange. A good’s potential use-value to someone else determines the value that it can be

These then are the three key dimensions of value present in any form of exchange, whether that be one regulated by money and market logic or by social relations. It is therefore not a question of whether or not a form of exchange has value, but of the roles each dimension of value has in shaping the terms of the exchange.

The Social Dimension of Market and Non-Market Exchanges

The use-value and symbolic-value of an object is determined by its social context then translated into a monetary exchange-value. In a non-market gift exchange, it is the opposite wherein the context — the social relations — play the primary role. Rather than a question of whether something costs money or not, it is more a question of where the core value is determined, and for what ends.

There are three general distinctions that can be identified between market and non-market systems of exchange, as indicated in the table below.

Impersonal versus Socially Regulated Exchanges
Market exchanges, generally, are impersonal while non-market exchanges are socially regulated. The use of money as the primary token of value in market exchanges is precisely what makes them impersonal. The nature of the relationship between the parties involved in the exchange does not have an impact on the value of the good or service being exchanged in a market exchange. On the other hand, the value of an exchange in a non-market setting is heavily determined by the relationship between the people involved in the exchange.

Discrete versus Ongoing Transactions
Since market-exchanges are governed by asocial relations, they are also discrete in the sense that they don’t create an ongoing relationship. That is, market-exchanges are oriented towards acquiring the goods available for the cash you have; their purpose is not to make friends, or create an ongoing relationship. Non-market exchanges, on the other hand are engaged in “in order to evoke an obligation to give back a gift, which in turn will evoke a similar obligation — a never-ending chain of gifts and obligations” (Kopytoff 2006: 69). The completion of an exchange in a market-exchange situation finalizes and marks the end of the transaction.  In a non-market situation, the idea is to build an ongoing social relationship rather than to simply exchange goods and obtain the “counterpart value.”

Absolute Exchanges versus Legacies of Exchange
A purchase from a vendor demands no further obligations after payment because the exchange is ?nal and the producer of the good exchanged has no further say in how it can be used. In contrast, a non-market exchange creates a legacy of exchange where even when someone has given something, they have some expectations and claims to that gift and how it is used. In a system of market exchange, the symbolic-value is part of the goods and services being exchanged. Any copy of a book purchased from Amazon has the same symbolic value as any other copy. As long as what is exchanged is identical, so then is the value because the symbolic-value and the use-value is also identical. In non-market transactions, such as gift giving, the symbolic-value is tied to the actual exchange so that identical gifts given under different circumstances have different values. A book given to you by a close friend therefore has the same use-value as any other copy, but a totally different symbolic-value that is generated by the mutual ties expressed in the exchange.

Companies that try to make money from user-generated content must recognize that their users still feel some sense of ownership over the content they create, even after they’ve agreed to hand over their data and content in exchange for use of the service. Companies that fail to recognize this run the risk of alienating their user-base and leaving people feeling exploited, rather than served.

In the final installment coming next week, look for a rundown of conclusions, and a download of a full paper.

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  1. Scott Walker says:

    An excellent dissection of the various values and an important admonition to anyone trafficking in user-generated content.

    The good news is that there are many ways for customers/users to be rewarded in their exchanges with companies. The bad news is that companies must identify which values they intend to offer and then map out how each of the various value exchanges will occur. In the area of UGC, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to value offerings.

    I would add that companies must be clear and explicit about the values being offered and the conditions under which UGC is being accepted. Even if the company provides measurable, objective value in an exchange, if it is not the value the consumer/user was expecting, there will be no perceived parity of value on the part of the consumer/user.

    Looking forward to part 3!


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